Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Chipping Away at the History of the Potato Chip

Take the humble potato chip. A loyal citizen of the Snack Food Kingdom, it fears not a dip covered death. It is consumed around the world draped in a cornucopia of flavors studiously crafted to suit local palates. You long for borsch flavored fried potato slices? Search no more, brothers and sisters. The Table of Spud has a seat and a warm, starchy hug reserved just for you. 

But lo! Humans haven’t always had the blessings of The Chip! Great wailing and the gnashing of teeth was the daily norm for humanity for untold eons. Eating, sleeping, reproducing, wailing, gnashing, and the occasional boring alien abduction was all a lowly human could expect in life. Thus scientists, historians, and gamers split history into BC & AD. “Before Chip” & “After Dip”. 

Okay. Okay. Enough joking around. I like potato chips and if you are even remotely human then you likely do as well. I also happen to live in the place where they were invented! Awesome, right? Here’s the story via Wikipedia: By the late nineteenth century, a popular version of the story attributed the dish to George Crum, a half-black, half-Native American cook at Moon's Lake House (located a few miles outside the city of Saratoga Springs) who was trying to appease an unhappy customer on 24 August 1853. The customer kept sending his French-fried potatoes back, complaining that they were too thick, too "soggy," and/or not salted well enough. Frustrated, Crum personally sliced several potatoes extremely thin, fried the potato slices to a crisp, and seasoned them with extra salt. To Crum's surprise, the customer loved them.  They soon came to be called "Saratoga Chips".

 Or is it?

That’s the story! Nothing else to see here. Move along, citizen. All known facts support the above tale without exception. Spending just a few minutes online totally doesn’t yield odd, conflicting variances at all! None! It’s not like George never took credit for the potato chip. It’s not like a common date given for his death (July 22, 1914) doesn’t match his tomb stone. 

George's grave in the Malta Ridge Cemetery. If you hurry you can follow my footprints to it.

It’s not like his BOUGHT AND PAID FOR biography never mentioned the potato chip. 


It’s not like his SISTER took credit for inventing them while they were both were alive in 1906.

Ah crap. Looks like it’s time to deep dive into the primary resource pool. Tap into the local historical societies. This will take a long time and involve arcane devices like this:

I cannot stress how fun it is to use a microfilm reader. Being serious!

This will take me a long time to compile information, double check local records, contact local historical societies, build a timeline, and then maybe MAYBE craft a fact-based picture of the past without too many holes. History is generally cataloged in detail only when circumstances deem it "important". The first thing I did was look into the sources referenced in the top search results for the chip's inventor. Take the above photo of George Crum, who actually went by George Speck for legal matters.

Who really is this handsome couple? Good question. Perhaps YOU will find the answer!
And here is the source image. Several sites note the woman is his wife without any proof. No dates. No locations. No indications of where in New York this was taken. In fact, if you do an image search in Google you will find this picture on sites with nothing to do with George or the TWO women he spent much of life with. How do I know this? Verifying the sources yielded a surprise. Turns out someone else had already done much of the primary source work I was in the midst of doing. Lots of largely ignored work, in fact. Enter the efforts of Dave Mitchell.

Props to Dave's work. He asked lots of good questions to lots of the right people. That's called research. Bask in its goodness.

Start here: 

Then here for information on George's very interesting life:

And finally: 

These links are worth reading as they expand on most of the topics mentioned here plus others. If you have any interesting in truth digging please read them and review his resources. 

Evidence suggests this is indeed George. The woman's identity is unconfirmed.

Here's the long and the short of what I have found to date, in part augmented by Dave's work. Quick note. If you visit the Saratoga Room in Saratoga's public library to review the same primary sources I did, be prepared to leave your jacket or purse at the door. They take security and theft seriously.

1. The story of the potato chip was not a subject of wide reporting until several years after it became popular. Even local surviving Saratogians reported not hearing about the Who and When of the chip until their adult years as this 1983 folklore research piece found.

Here's the link to the academic site I found the full piece on. It is free to sign up and a cool site for those with a nose for research.

2. The basic recipe for potato chips had been around before 1853. Cutting up potatoes, cooking them in oil or fat, and then salting them was NOT a new idea. Dave and others have found references in articles and cook books. Perhaps it was a local (but not exclusive) variation of the recipe that we call a chip today. That is possible.

3. As I showed above, George's sister took credit for the invention. George never did in any resource I have found. What does this mean to me? Not sure. Taken at face value, George did NOT invent the chip as he never disputed her claim. I want facts I can deposit in the bank. Consider this and ask yourself what YOU make of it and what questions you want answered.

Curiouser and Curiouser

4. George owned a popular, well liked business in a town that the famous and wealthy vacationed in. He, at the very least, was a powerful part of popularizing the chip. By all accounts the food he served was topnotch. The rich and poor enjoyed his food. When the socialites of  New York City returned home to regale their peers with stories from The Spa, the most excellent products of his kitchen were recommended.

The End!

Wait, what? So, here we stand. We have the story of George and the disgruntled customer. We have deeper dives into the story and the lack of any currently known evidence supporting said story. We know the chip gained popularity amongst socialites and commoners alike in the mid to late 1800's in the Northeast. We know it is a common theme to link Saratoga to this popularity. We know George and Kate are part of this timeline somehow. And that's about it until more facts are found or pieced together. The story of the potato chip is a fun example of the contrast between a popular telling and currently known (keyword: currently) facts. We actually have a hazy veil surrounding the birth of the chip. Did George invent it? In the strictest sense of the word: No. Did Kate? Maybe. The cooking method was not new, remember. However, it is possible their establishment via Kate had a popular, localized variation. Popular city + Famous patrons + Favorite local eating hole + Word of Mouth = Inventor of the Potato chip. That's my theory.  Not much of a climax, I know. Very frustrating for me too after all the effort I invested. Lots of huff and puff with no real satisfaction. That's history sometimes. Such a delicious tease! I know George's name will keep being thrown around but I hope at least YOU will know the story is much more than a graphic or meme shared without thought or care. YOU might be the person who finds the missing evidence. There's a lot to still explore. For example, many sources list the July 27th, 1914 issue of the Saratogian newspaper as holding an obituary for George that mentions the potato chip. BUT DAMNED IF I CAN FIND IT! I poured over this date and the two before and after it. If you find it, let me know.

If I see another advert for Minard's Liniment or Uneedo Biscuits I'm going to punch myself in the throat. While it was amusing to find a story about five hoboes in Mechanicville that a judge gave exactly ten minutes to leave town, this is what really caught my eye:

Any place I can have my hair done, buy an imported bird AND get an electric massage is swell in my book. I could really go for an electric massage right now, in fact. Follow it up with a big bag of chips.

That spells history no matter how you slice it.

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